Flashback Friday: The Cold Ride Home

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If you’ve been reading CMG a while, you might remember this story from 2017. If not, here’s the background: Longtime CMG reader Michael Hill heard I wanted a sport bike, and offered me his 1996 Suzuki RF900R. He said he could store it until spring, but with just a few days left in November, I decided I’d fly to Ontario, and ride it home to New Brunswick. It sounded like an adventure. I picked up the bike, wired in some heated gear, rode it to Mark’s Cobourg location, and embarked on the Cold Ride Home the next day.
 
I won’t spoil the rest of the story, except to say the bike’s been great fun ever since I got it home. Currently, it’s out in the shed mid-teardown, getting a carb kit, valve adjustment and new steering head bearings, so I can put trouble-free miles down next summer, once pandemic restrictions start to lift (I hope!).
Zac and the RF900R look pretty good outside Mark’s house, and the price was right.

The Chain

It didn’t take long for the trip to go CMG. While mostly sound, the Suzuki had a noticeable vibration at speed while riding up 401. I narrowed it down to a driveline issue.

At Mark’s place, we saw the chain had a tight spot, meaning sometimes it was far too tight, other times far too loose. Surely it would be no problem to find a chain, make a quick swap, and be on my way?

Then I looked up the chain size, and discovered the RF900R uses an oddball 532 pitch chain. I could get a replacement in Montreal, but that wasn’t on my planned route, and it would involve five hours of highway riding on a sketchy chain.

Costa, who lives in Montreal, figured I could run a 530 chain just to get home, then change sprockets, but again, this solution wasn’t ideal. But where would I get a 532 chain locally?

The extensive network of CMG operatives came through: Larry Tate suggested a shop in Belleville might have the chain. I called first thing Tuesday morning and they indeed had one in stock, to their surprise and mine. Then they dropped the bomb: The sticker price was $230.

But the crew at Belleville Sport and Lawn are typical of the old-school crowd that runs long-established small-town dealerships. Without me even asking, they dropped the price to $170, and said they could install it for me right away, allowing me to enter upstate NY at Ogdensburg just after lunch. Surely the worst was over, right?

The first full day of riding saw me cross upstate New York, through the Adirondacks.

The Ice

Across the St. Lawrence, I realized I might be in trouble again.

I’d  intended to lay down some serious distance in Tuesday’s warm temperatures, but there was a lot of snow beside the roads in New York. My chain replacement meant I was riding later in the day, with dropping sun and temperatures, and I faced the possibility of thawed snow re-freezing on the roadway. So much for my plan of maximum speed through the Adirondacks; I’d have to use maximum caution instead.

This meant a slower ride, which meant I’d make less distance, or have to ride after dark. The worst part was, the riding was really, really good. Starting with Rt. 68, I worked my way eastward through small towns like Canton, Colton, Sevey and Long Lake. There wasn’t much traffic, the pavement was almost all in good shape, and there were few houses on the stretches between towns, meaning I had little chance of hitting a blue-haired granny backing out her driveway.

This is just the kind of area where you can lay the hammer down, and here I was, doddering along and wearing the heels out of my boots by doing constant friction tests on the pavement.

The Hot Biscuit Diner did not disappoint.

Thankfully, the surface actually got better the farther east I went, and I thought I just might be able to make it to my goal of Ticonderoga after all, as long as the roads were clear — but it would mean breaking my self-imposed rule of no riding after dark.

Decision time. The sun was setting fast, temperatures were dropping. After the mountains, it would be an easy ride down I-87 towards Ticonderoga. Question was, would I make the interstate without hitting black ice in the mountains in the dark?

Local motorists said it was safe, so I figured I’d try it, and just take it slow. The route from Long Lake to I-87 took almost twice as long as it would have in summer. The route itself (28N and Blue Ridge Road) was spectacular, with lots of curves and elevation changes, but there were few houses, and it was difficult to see far enough ahead to watch for ice, especially with fog along much of the route.

I dropped my speed to a crawl and gritted my teeth. I was the only eastbound vehicle the whole trip. A crash would have meant serious trouble in this remote area.

Thankfully, I made the interstate without incident, then Ticonderoga shortly after, where I set up camp at the Stone House Motel, complete with smelly plumbing, a non-working TV and dodgy wifi. But the owner had the heat cranked and the excellent Hot Biscuit Diner was just across the street. And the room was only $50. I’d call that an even draw.

On Day 2, I intended to head to Portland, Maine, but only made it as far as Manchester, New Hampshire. It would have been quicker to cut through the top of the state, but I wanted to avoid the elevation of the White Mountains. With the temperatures on the edge of freezing, I wanted to steer clear of potential black ice.

The Gremlins

The roadway was slippery Wednesday morning, so I delayed my departure for a few minutes, thinking the roads might thaw out a bit, and I might dodge the forecast rain. I was right on the first guess, but not the second.

It started raining before I even got to Vermont, never letting up for more than a few minutes for the rest of the day. And my troubles were just beginning.

At an intersection in Vermont, Trouble #1: the bike died. I assumed I’d just been sloppy with the clutch due to cold hands and stalled it, but the bike wouldn’t start. I ended up bump-starting it and revving the engine at stops to keep the rpms up.

Bump-starting a sport tourer is something you don’t want to do very often. It gets tiring. With water seeping into my gear, grimly blipping the throttle and saying rude things about Google Maps as it directed me through small-town stop-and-go traffic, I figured things were as bad as they could get. And then, something shorted out in the electric clothing and Trouble #2: the shocks started.

I don’t know if the heated jacket and glove liners were responsible, or the heated grips, or something else entirely. Whatever the problem, I was now riding through small towns, scared to use the clutch because I didn’t want another shot of voltage through my hand.

Then, rolling into lunch, Trouble #3: I noticed fuel spewing from the bike’s petcock. Just the sort of thing you want, with electrical shocks running through the bike.

Late-night motorcycle maintenance in the EconoLodge parking lot in Manchester, New Hampshire. Good thing I packed the toolkit.

I’d heeded my own advice and packed a pretty decent toolkit; I managed to stop the flow, leaving a gasoline slick in the parking lot that would enrage a Greenpeace activist. Even now, I’m looking over my shoulder fearfully, worried Bernie Sanders and a team of Vermont’s toughest eco-warriors may track me down.

My reply, of course, would be that it might be more environmentally friendly to keep older vehicles on the road, as it reduces industrial pollution, but even I would have to admit that keeping the Suzuki running was getting to be quite a chore — especially when, Trouble #4:  it once again inexplicably quit after lunch.

I stripped all the heated gear off the bike,  bump-started it again and continued on, noting the engine had ceased its usual four-cylinder purr; instead of a contented tiger, it now seemed more of a bucking bronco. Not good, especially when I made it back to the four-lane highway.

And then, Trouble #5: light snow flurries began. Once again, I had a hard decision. The goal was to make it home by Thursday. Despite the gremlins, I was making slow forward progress, and the engine troubles were only intermittent. The flurries stopped and I decided to press on to Concord, New Hampshire; I’d pull off into a motel if I couldn’t make it that far.

With no heated gear, fading daylight, in the pouring rain, and on a sputtering bike, I finally made Concord; realizing Manchester wasn’t much farther, I decided to try to make it there. Every kilometre I made today was one less I’d do Thursday.

When the motorcycle quit again at a toll booth, it was too late to turn back. I pulled over and managed to bump start it one last time, whereupon it ran like a champ all the rest of the way to the Econo Lodge. Go figure.

I desperately needed a good sleep, but had to tinker with the bike in the motel parking lot, surrounded by pushers, junkies, hookers, and other cheerful locals. I wanted to be ready to start early the next morning. Thursday would be a long haul, even if I didn’t break down. But the bike had run strongly for the last few kilometres and Thursday would be sunny, if cold. Surely the worst was past?

Day 3: Time to make serious miles. I wanted to make it all the way from Manchester to Saint John, but the bike thought otherwise …

The Starter

The worst was not past.

Try as I might, on Thursday morning the bike refused to start, even after rolling  down a long hill. The starter would turn over but the engine wouldn’t kick in. No problem, I thought — I’d just get a boost from the Suzuki dealer, conveniently located right next door to the motel, once they opened.

And then, I realized it was American Thanksgiving. Nobody was open — not the Suzuki dealer,  nor anyone else. I had to solve this myself, or call my brother-in-law to come and collect me in his truck. I’d made it this far and the bike was running fine the night before. I refused to quit and started pushing again.

Eventually, the engine gave a healthy four-cylinder burp and the bike roared to life. I hit the highway, exhausted. At this point, there’d been three days of adversity and it was dragging me down, but the bike was running well, and I decided I’d press on as far as I could.

I’d gambled the bike’s electrical issues would disappear in the rain-free weather, and wired my heated jacket and gloves back into the battery. I was right: I managed to maintain a semblance of warmth on the road north-east. Portland, Augusta, Bangor: I opened the throttle and watched Maine’s cities fly by. There was only one last enemy.

Parked on the side of Rt. 9. The Airline Road was the best part of the trip, with the lanes clear of traffic and cops.

Route 9

Route 9, aka the Airline Road, is one of the better biking roads on the east coast, in my opinion, but it’s not a great place to be when the sun sets in sub-zero temperatures. It’s fairly curvy, with lots of hills, and travels through remote wilderness.

I ran constant mental calculations as I watched the mileage tick off, and figured I could clear the highway before dark, making it to the relative safety of New Brunswick’s four-lane Rt. 1 before losing the light.

I gambled right. With the locals safely tucked away for Thanksgiving dinner, and the state troopers seemingly all on holiday instead of highway duty, I found myself  the only vehicle in the northbound lane, and I could ride as fast as I wanted.

With a golden sunset casting my shadow ahead of me, I finally knew it was all going to be okay. The Suzuki was running fine and I knew I’d be home soon. Getting back into familiar territory in southern NB, I burned down the highway and made it back to Saint John about an hour after sunset. Not bad for a day that started off looking like I’d be stuck, waiting for a pickup truck to bail me out.

Conclusion

You know you’re home when you see the Tim Hortons signs.

I knew this trip wouldn’t be easy. That’s why I wanted to do it. 

I also expected mechanical hiccups with the motorcycle. It would be crazy to ride a 21-year-old bike across the country without expecting some sort of trouble.

But it all worked out, and now I have the winter to repair and tune the bike. Thanks again, Michael, for the ride. I look forward to sharing more adventures with this Suzuki on CMG in the future — but hopefully, we’ve seen the last of the gremlins.

8 COMMENTS

  1. In the summer of 1980 I rode across Canada from Ottawa to Victoria and then back to Ottawa on a 1974 Norton 850 Commando (which I still own!).I thought that if I crash or don’t make it, at least I will still be in Canada!

    • I’ve definitely had that thought before, but–I do enjoy riding in the US, and I have a network of friends there who could help out too.

    • Because I’ve done Ontario-NB a few times, and really wanted to ride upstate NY. Also because it’s much cheaper to go through the US (hotels and gas are significantly less). And, why not? Lots of seedy motels in Ontario and Quebec with drug deals in the parking lots too.

  2. An amazing story full of suspense and ultimately victory. Missed it when it was first printed and so glad you decided it was worth printing again.

    Cold early morning starts, iffy mechanical moments, repeated jump starting, lots of rain and a hot meal in a cheap but warm motel room at the end of the day. A timeless adventure that many riders can relate to – the unknowns of a motorbike new to you and the weather in late November.

    Thanks for reprinting. Like a good movie with a happy ending, worth watching a second time. Well done Zac.

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